“Based On” or “Inspired By” a True Story? / Manning Wolfe

“Based On” or “Inspired By” a True Story?
by Manning Wolfe

When I give my PowerPoint presentation, “Legal Issues for Authors,” I’m often asked if my legal thrillers are based on actual events that happened to clients in my law firm. I always stutter a bit when answering this question because the answer is yes and no. Attorneys already get a bad rap for qualifying every answer, so I try to slip in an explanation without too much legalese.

While all of the books in the Texas Lady Lawyer Series are based on true stories, they are not the factual series of events that actually occurred in each case. Is that “inspired by” or “based on”? Where is the line?

Terms Defined:
A story that was “inspired by” actual events is primarily fiction, but the writer gets the idea from something that took place in reality. The resulting novel takes its inspiration from the true events without claiming to represent anything that may have actually happened. The characters are usually original to the novel or only vaguely resemble the real-life participants.

A story “based on” actual events is more exact. Sometimes the names of the people and places are retained. Unlike a biography where some degree of accuracy is expected, the story is based on reality, but liberties are taken. The core elements, such as events, themes, and main characters serve as representations of themselves, but time may be compressed or secondary characters pressed into an amalgamation for efficiency.

Examples from Published Books:
With these standards in mind, my legal thrillers are inspired by truth and launched from actual events. I use the legal facts that are in the public records or media and stop short of revealing anything that was confidentially shared by a client. In other words, I use the truth as a jumping off place to tell the story of re-named characters that are fictional when the novel is finally published.

In Dollar Signs, my clients were two brothers who signed a billboard lease without realizing there was an option in the fine print to purchase the land under the billboard. In reality, the brothers didn’t bring the lease to me until the sign company sued them to obtain ownership of the land through a technicality in the law. In a meeting one day, the younger brother said, “Why don’t I just burn the damn thing down!” Of course, he didn’t, but the idea stuck with me and when I wrote the novel, it begins with the brother burning down the huge billboard and hanging off the catwalk dangling above the cars below. Merit Bridges, the Austin attorney in the Texas Lady Lawyer series takes over from there to take on the Goliath corporation and defend the brothers.

In Music Notes, the second in the series, Merit Bridges represents a down-and-out guitarist, Liam Nolan, who’s slain near the Lady Bird Lake with his own Stratocaster. The probate that develops after his death involves a young University of Texas student who believes that Liam is his father. In comes the villain, a music manager out of Los Angeles, and trouble ensues. In real life, my client, in this case, was the estate of the musician who had died. I changed the name of the famous guitarist and disguised his illegitimate son. The court records are public and used in the plot, but the majority of the story is fiction. The battle over the assets is exaggerated from the true story, but the law used to solve the probate issues is similar.

In the upcoming Green Fees—to be released in the Spring of 2018—Merit Bridges represents a young golf pro who dreams of playing the PGA tour. I won’t expand on the legal issues here, as the book is not yet published, but the true story involved a contract between a golf sponsor and the young pro as the jumping off point.

Bottom Line:
In all three books, the stories “inspired by” true events are developed “based on” a true story. The jumping off points and settings are true in all three cases, but the development of the story, characters, and resolution are all created in my imagination.

Manning Wolfe is an author and attorney, with one foot in the business world and one foot in the creative realm. Her business experience, combined with her vivid imagination, manifests in quality services for clients, as well as compelling storytelling for readers.

Manning writes cinematic-style, intelligent, fast-paced action-packed legal thrillers with a salting of Texas bullshit. She is writing a series of Texas Lady Lawyer novels based on her main character, Austin attorney Merit Bridges. Manning’s background as an attorney has given her a voyeur’s peek into some shady characters’ lives and a front row seat to watch the good people who stand against them. Visit her at www.manningwolfe.com.


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Thanks to Joseph Borden and publisher/editorial director Clay Stafford for their assistance in putting together this week’s editorial.